Your college's next leader should be a woman, study says

Institutions would benefit if higher ed shattered the glass ceiling

Caroline Hopkins, staff writerCaroline Hopkins, staff writer

Women represent just 26% of school leaders.

The figure is troubling on its own, but recent research suggests it could have implications beyond gender inequality. It could also be detrimental to the institutions.

That's because women are better suited to lead colleges and universities, says Øyvind Martinsen, the head of BI Norwegian Business School's Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour.

Martinsen and his colleague Lars Glasø recently analyzed data from the Norwegian School of Economics' Administrative Research Institute's survey of roughly 3,000 managers, out of which more than 900 fell into each of three categories:

  • Female;
  • Working in the public sector; and
  • Employed in a senior management position.

The researchers considered the survey responses in accordance with what previous research has identified as the five key indicators of personality, or the "five factor model." The five traits and Martinsen's explanation for each are:

  • Emotional stability, the ability to withstand job-related pressure;
  • Sociability, the ability to support colleagues and work inclusively;
  • Outgoingness, the ability to take initiative and communicate with clarity;
  • Open mindedness, the ability to innovate and retain curiosity and ambition; and
  • Methodical approach, the ability to set goals and be thorough with following up.

3 more traits that make top leaders

After reviewing the 3,000 surveys, Martinsen and Glasø concluded that female leaders outperform male leaders in every category except for one: emotional stability.

Martinsen argues that females' susceptibility to job-related pressure should not be singlehandedly keeping them from leadership roles and points out that the four other key traits are vital for a leader's success—especially in higher ed.

Higher ed leaders without these traits aren't hopeless—here's how they can improve their leadership

Drawing on the survey, Martinsen also argues that women are equally successful or more successful when it comes to accomplishing the key aims of an educational institution, including:

  • Attracting the best students;
  • Attracting the best academics;
  • Improving outcomes through innovation; and
  • Engaging with the best organizations to increase productivity.

Other studies have found that women excel at leadership in other areas, as well. In 2015, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a higher number of women in a group correlates with increased teamwork and creativity. In 2016, EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that female executives are strongly correlated with profits at publically traded companies.

It's time to diversify your faculty too. Here are the best practices for doing so

Yet despite the evidence that female leadership is widely beneficial, women fill just 30% of trustee seats at private universities and only 28% at public ones. They earn $9,000 less than men right after college, and proceed to earn only 80% of what men earn if pursuing higher ed careers. Female students are less likely to be perceived as the smartest student in class—and female professors are less likely to be perceived as "brilliant" and "genius." The list goes on—it's time to do something about it (Farbrot, Science Daily, 3/20; Martinsen, Times Higher Education, 3/30).

One idea for tackling the gender wage gap? Let's get women negotiating


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